Irena’s Vow debuted at the acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2023 and will screen at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 9, 2023. The film is based on the heroic efforts of Irena Gut, a young, Polish woman, who hid Jews during World War II. In light of the terrorist attacks in Israel, Irena’s Vow is a highly relevant film.
Will the Holocaust-level atrocities committed in Israel inadvertently work to dampen criticism of the film? Who would want to diminish a movie which depicts the daring rescue of Jews when so many were recently slaughtered?
As a critic, however, I must remain objective, and the straight truth is this: Irena’s Vow is a noble effort but an average piece of work.
It is perhaps unfair to compare it to some of the preeminent Holocaust films—Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Son of Saul, Sophie’s Choice, and Sobibor—but these references will be inevitable.
Schindler’s List comes closest to mind, naturally, and the narrative structure is quite similar. Like Oskar Schindler, Irena Gut could have done nothing and looked out for only herself. But she did not; she took life-threatening risks (probably more so than Schindler because he was German while she Polish) to save Jews.
Indeed, Irena’s Vow compelled me to return to Schindler’s List for reevaluation. It is still a tremendous film, but what nagged me about it years ago remained after another viewing. And that is, I am hard pressed to know exactly why Schindler had his change of heart. He is a rake, opportunist, and war profiteer, but somewhere along the way he decides saving lives is more important than money. Though we are offered clues, it’s never clear when the window opened on his soul.
Irena’s Vow is on firmer ground in this regard. After witnessing the death of a mother and child at the hands of a sadistic Nazi commander, she ‘vows’ to do what she can to prevent other deaths. Oftentimes, a viewer doesn’t want things spelled out, but for someone –Oskar Schindler—who has been revered by so many, I felt we were owed clarity. It was not given in the film, but Irena’s Vow does not make the same mistake, and I am more satisfied for it.
On the flip side, we see Oskar Schindler wrestling with morality. Shall he continue to be part of a criminal government and line his own pockets, or will he be a better man? Irena Gut seems to have no such conundrum. True, she makes the choice to shield Jews when she could have looked the other way, but from the film’s outset she is presented as pure and wholesome. Her character often feels one note and too saintly.
Where the film also stumbles is how Irena rescues Jews. I don’t know the historical specifics of her actions, but it seems far fetched she hid 11 Jews in the basement of a German officer’s home, for which she was the housekeeper. And if she did, this movie makes it hard to believe it unfolded as told.
The fugitives live what seems to be an almost homey existence in a secret cellar, a basement which has windows and could be detected in an instant. Yet, time and again, no one discovers the hiding place or a too easy scenario is concocted whereby Irena and her wards evade detection.
One might speculate the small budget Irena’s Vow had to work with was a factor. When you are filming with the constraints of a limited location production you might have to bend the narrative, and, at times, Irena’s Vow feels as if it sacrifices authenticity to economics.
What stood out even more is the Jewish fugitives all appear young and handsome. The cast of any Survivor season looks worse than do these hunted Jews. Their costumes and bearing kept me thinking these are less escapees of the Nazi genocide and more a bedraggled version of the crew from Friends.
All that said, what surprised me most about Irena’s Vow is its unabashed pro-life position. The movie could have avoided this contemporary land mine, but it intentionally takes time to ponder whether or not one of the Jewish women, who is pregnant, should give birth. A newborn could give them all away, and they discuss the pros and cons of this risk. In the end, they choose life. This will surely be construed as a socio-political statement, and because politics seems to touch every facet of our lives, Irena’s Vow may be unfairly judged for its position on abortion.
Whatever your politics, Irena’s Vow is a movie worth seeing. It brings a little known corner of history to light, and we should all be glad to hear about other rescuers besides Oskar Schindler.
Irena’s Vow may be a little uneven and lack verisimilitude, but perhaps a movie about selflessness is something everyone needs to see during these trying times.
Blast Rating: 2 out of 4 stars